If you were looking for a good return on investment in the last few years, it was hard to beat a Chicago taxi medallion. Medallions, which are city-issued licenses to operate cabs, increased in value at least fivefold between 2006 and 2013. But now after huge shifts in the industry, many owners are deep underwater on their medallion loans, and some say they’re nearly worthless.
“I haven’t written a new taxi loan in well over nine months? Ten months?” said Charlie Goodbar, an attorney and taxi fleet owner. “The access to capital’s disappeared.”
Chicago limits the number of medallions to roughly 7,000. Without those metal plates affixed to the hood, a taxi cannot operate in the city. Goodbar has facilitated hundreds of medallion sales over the years. But today, would-be buyers are finding it nearly impossible to find loans to purchase medallions.
“I probably have put together at least 20-30 percent of all transfers, at some point probably more than half,” said Goodbar. “And as a market-maker, and as a license broker, and as an attorney, and someone who’s in the lending business, how in good faith can I make a market when I can’t value the asset or value cash flow?”
Disruption in Chicago’s taxi industry — both from the entry of competing rideshare services, and changes to city policies affecting medallion owners — have turned the business model on its head in just two years. At one time, investing or lending in a medallion purchase was a sound business decision, because cab owners could make a good living.
“It was a way for an immigrant family to move up the social ladder and economic ladder through the use of leveraged financing in the taxi industry, and a lot of hard work,” said Goodbar.
But today, Goodbar said it’s nearly impossible to find a bank willing to lend money for a medallion purchase, and so the avenue that many immigrants once took is increasingly closed off.
You can tell by looking at the numbers. Between 2011 and 2013, when the market was robust, an average of 30-40 medallions changed hands monthly. But starting in February of 2014, that number dropped sharply, and never recovered. In 2015, only seven medallions were transferred in the first three months.
“There’s no buyer in the market,” said Shyam Arora, a medallion owner. “So it’s a piece of garbage.”
Arora is one of those immigrants who found success in the taxi industry. He came from India in 2002 and bought a medallion a few years later. Today, he has three. He and his son drive two of the cabs during the day, and he leases the third. At one time, he had as many as four drivers for his small fleet — but those days seem long ago.
On a recent early morning, he took one of his cabs to a city-owned site on the South Side for an annual taxi inspection.
“This inspection process is stressful, very stressful,” he said.
This day, he was especially nervous. The car is a 2010 Toyota Prius with a whopping 313,000 miles on it. Arora knew inspectors would be looking for even the smallest flaw to take it out of operation.
“Yesterday I spent $200 to the mechanic and the day before yesterday I paid $100 for detailing,” he recounted.
He also got the engine cleaned, and drove an hour out to the suburbs just to pick up a small paint marker that he could use to cover minor exterior nicks. Altogether, he estimated spending $500 to get the car in tip-top shape — about three days’ earnings.
“I’m losing nowadays, every day, in my business,” said Arora. Three months ago, he fell behind on his mortgage and medallion loan.
Arora explained that most of his income comes from leasing his taxis to other drivers, rather than driving his own cab. But amid a shortage of taxi drivers in Chicago, he’s struggled to find people to use his taxis. That’s meant his vehicles sit empty about one-third of the time, while he still foots the bill for their medallion loans, the car payments, taxi affiliation fees and other expenses.
Even when Arora does have drivers, he said it’s gotten much more difficult for them to find passengers. He blamed rideshare companies like UberX, Lyft and Sidecar for stealing business.
“When you don’t get a customer for an hour, the [taxi] driver gets so frustrated, he goes to Starbucks or he goes home,” explained Arora.
Arora would love to sell his medallions and be done with it. But he knows he won’t find a buyer at a good price. Plus, he’s facing the same dilemma that homeowners once did during the recent housing crisis. Many borrowed significant sums of money against their homes as housing values increased, only to find themselves underwater on those loans once the market settled.
Similarly, Arora and many other owners borrowed heavily against their medallions while they increased in value. Arora said that helped his family get through the recession.
“Medallions were the source of feeding everybody — every expense we have,” he explained.
But now, he owes $600,000 against his medallions, and he knows that nobody will buy them for anything close to that amount.
Arora believes his only way out may be a loan modification. Goodbar says medallion lenders have every reason to cooperate.
“There will be shakeout in the market, the lenders will have to work with the borrowers,” he said, “because I think the last thing a large medallion lender wants is a bunch of medallions sitting in a drawer.”
Arora hopes that’ll be true in his case, because he wants to stay in the taxi business. Otherwise, he’s looking at filing for bankruptcy.